NYC Weekend – Celebration of Lauren and Hoyt

Lynn, Allison, Lauren and Barbara pose outside favorite Nail Shop

My niece Lauren is getting married at the end of May, so her bridesmaids, close friends, Aunts and female cousins all met in New York City for a weekend of fun.  We went to her sister Allison’s favorite cheap nail salon ($15 for a manicure AND pedicure), shopped, ate, and ended the older adults’ portion of the festivities in a private Karaoke room at midnight.  The photo above is (from left to right) my sister Lynn, her daughters Allison and Lauren, and our sister Barbara.  Sister Cathy was lucky enough to only be in this side view of a Karaoke song, at the left across from Barbara:

Cathy’s daughter Nadia only stood up once, singing here with her cousin Allison:

and to be fair to those whose photos are published here – this is me with my niece Lauren:


Keeping Asheville Wierd

coffee shop

Trafalgar Square Coffee Shop in Asheville

Yes, we’ve made it to Asheville, after visiting Chris’ parents in Findlay, my kids and Chris’ sister in Columbus, packing up all the stuff we had stored in Laura’s basement, watching for a break in the snow, driving to Cincinnati to pack up all the stuff from Mike’s basement, and then heading south ahead of some snow heading for Ohio.

Asheville is relatively small – only 100,000 people in the immediate area.  It has been called the “Paris of the South” and has lots of arts galleries and of course the Biltmore House and Gardens.  Another notable place we’ve learned about is the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, and I have read the new-agers actually boast more vortices in this area than in Sedona. 

Above is a downtown coffee shop called “Trafalgar Square” – it’s a double-decker.  We haven’t had coffee here yet – we have actually frequented the single Starbucks in town, although we are trying to move away from them and toward the smaller coffee shops here as we get to know our way around.  We spent the first couple of days moving into a month-to-month rental house we were lucky to find (there were two other people looking it over that we had to shoo away as we moved in).  Then we used some key Real Estate websites we found to search for and explore houses in our price range as a way to focus learning about neighborhoods and primary roads.  We found a great one whose property search interface is like Google Maps, where you can zoom in and change criteria to see where houses are for sale.  At that point I still had my telephone broadband internet access, so we could just drive around using that map to focus our research and re-plan as we went.  We narrowed down our list of houses and areas to around a half-dozen (primarily looking at the outside, but Chris walked into one that happened to be open while I kept the motor running).

We interviewed some real estate agents, picked one, looked at houses, and decided to buy one that was a “great investment” and very near downtown (a 5 minute drive door to door).  It is a buyer’s market here, but there is still appreciation in the single digits in the area.  The best deals are for new builds where builders will price below market value to terminate their construction loans.  There were so many houses to look at, and many vacant ones just waiting for a buyer to appear!  For any of you thinking of moving here, or with some excess cash flow – this is a great investor’s market, and many houses have rental units attached, as UNCA is here and there is a good demand for rentals close to town.

The neighborhood we are buying in is “West Asheville” which is still still growing and appreciating – but not as stable a market as North Asheville, which has the larger, older, pricier homes.  Most houses on our street are newer builds, although the next door neighbors (see TEE PEE in their front yard, below) have an older house that is slowly being renovated.  The tee pee was up for about a week, but is now gone.

tee pee

Tee Pee in front yard of neighbor’s house – ours is the one with the red roof, with the “screening fence”

We are enjoying Asheville – for Chris, it’s a true introduction to the southern way-meets-diversity.  People actually stop for pedestrians, and wave to you.  The curvy roads with on-street parking often reduce to a single lane.  The oncoming drivers pull over, wave as you pass, and then slowly pull out.  No horn honking road rage here.

There are several large “organic groceries” around – Fresh Market, which is a large chain, the Greenlife Grocery, where flute or harp players are common as you walk in, and Earth Fare,  headquartered here in Asheville.  Restaurants are plenty and eclectic.

Chris was lucky enough to land a good job (read:  a professional job, although at about 80% of her “big-city” salary).  Medical and tourism jobs are plentiful – other industries are not quite so represented.  I alternate between being content to be useful staying home to get some logistics done and frantically looking for “that job” that will make me feel more secure.  We were careful to purchase a house that we could afford without a lot of financial stress, and even the Element has found a community full of siblings and cousins (Scions).

organic mechanic

The Organic Mechanic – well recommended – in West Asheville

On one of the days we were driving through West Asheville to see a house, we had to navigate around some police activity.  Later, in the Asheville Citizen-Times, I read that the property owner had been evicted for delinquent tax payment – and the article mentioned the 12 goats and 25 pigeons found in the residence, as well as bottles of fermented goat cheese.  We went back to snap a photo of the house:

sulphur springs

West Asheville metallic house where goats and pigeons lived

There are several community gardens – this one is decorated with shovels and is next door to a metalworking artists’s shop:

Metal Sculpture Garden

Community Garden decorated with shovels

But there are also quiet, quaint old cities nearby – we looked at a huge new house up in Weaverville, which is only 15 minutes drive north of Asheville.  Here is a shot of the downtown storefronts:


Weaverville NC

And here is a shot of downtown Asheville, through the trees, from our neighborhood:

downtown view

Central California – Visiting Family, Coastline and Wine Country

santa barb
Santa Barbara coastline road

From San Diego we drove north through the Los Angeles area to visit my uncle Don, my cousin Skip, and his wife Janet.  As my “West Coast” family members on my father’s side, I had only met them a couple of times, so it was very interesting to get to know them as an adult.  Don, in his late 80s, has an amazing memory for dates – placing visits and events to the month anytime in the past.  I learned he was a founding member of the Ski Patrol in WWII.  He told me a few things I hadn’t known about my parents’ lives – what a gift!  Skip (previously an architect in the Navy) and his wife Janet met through their church and are both very active in it.  They were kind enough to take us to see Atonement in Los Angeles – another well-made depressing film.  I missed seeing my cousin Chris, who lives in Seattle but dropped down for Don’s birthday, but I had a good chat with her and hope to catch up with her soon.  Her voice instantly brought back memories of my aunt Carlobelle’s voice (Carlobelle was my father’s sister, who hated her name so much she was called “Button” by anyone who knew her).

Muir Woods view from hillside trail

Next we drove up the coast through Santa Barbara and to the San Francisco area.  We visited Chris’ uncle Gene and aunt Reta, who live just south of San Francisco. 

gene and reta

Gene and Reta’s House – front view


Gene and Reta’s House – view of Bay

The last time we had seen them was in Iowa at a wedding in April of 2007.  About twenty years ago Chris had spent a week or so with them at their house, when Reta taught Chris how to drive a stick shift on the near-vertical streets around their house.  Chris had fun trying to remember places and find her way around town, as well as spending time with them again.  Reta told us great stories of her life, including a few “Bumps in the Night” stories she has written down for her grandchildren.  Gene gave us lots of good suggestions about places to explore, had very fond memories of time spent in Chattanooga, and introduced us to Cooks Illustrated, which we now have subscribed to.  What a great magazine!  It will definitely have an impact on the mashed potatoes at next year’s Thanksgiving.

muir hike

Muir Woods trail – photo digitally lightened several times so the trail would be visible!!!

We drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge, snapping a few pictures in the cold pouring rain:

sf skyline

San Francisco skyline from north of Golden Gate Bridge


Golden Gate Bridge from north

We drove northeast through Sausalito, backtracked west toward the coast to Muir Woods, and went hiking there in the pouring rain.  Cathedral Grove in Muir Woods is where the first United Nations meeting adjourned to acknowledge the value of preserving nature.  From Muir Woods we continued driving north on PCH, through several flooded-over roadway areas, until we cut across to Santa Rosa to spend the night.  The hills between the ocean and Santa Rosa were lovely, even in the near-dark:  winding roads through small vineyards and gorges.  Then we drove east over the hills near Sonoma and into Napa Valley – absolutely beautiful country, again.  We visited Dean and DeLuca, and then Grgich Hills and Peju wineries – we could only survive two because it’s hard for me to spit or pour out such yummy wine, and Chris was driving.


Peju Winery, Napa Valley

peju 2

Peju Winery Vineyard View, Napa Valley

We were amazed and happy to find that Grgich Hills wines are all organic and biodynamically grown.  For people who don’t drink large quantities, the strong taste of their wine makes drinking even more enjoyable (they don’t water their vineyards artificially).  Having not done my homework on Peju, I didn’t realize the interesting looking mustards and sauces in their gift shop are actually what they’re known best for – and of course we didn’t buy them, but purchased a couple of bottles of wine instead!  Before we returned to the coast south of San Francisco, we went further east into Sacramento, where we saw The Savages at the lovely old Crest Theater.

When we drove south from San Francisco to Carmel, we passed this lighthouse:


Lighthouse on California coast

and somewhere along the way Chris snapped a photo of this flower:

purple flower

Purple flower near California’s coast

Southern CA Coast – San Diego, La Jolla


We drove across to San Diego and toured the coast, including La Jolla – while Tiger Woods was just north of there playing The Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines.  On the drive over we saw a long valley full of windmills:


We were also very interested to see the hotels now using compact fluorescent bulbs in their lamps.  This drive has been during intense political debates – and we couldn’t help noticing this rooftop debate that mimiced what we had been listening to – we’ll leave “name the bird” to the reader:


To get a balanced viewpoint, of course we have programmed the XM radio to “America Right” as well as “Air America”.  We also enjoyed this view of a cat in a window, guarding the bird feeder in hopes to catch a bird after a free meal:


In San Diego, we drove out to Cabrillo National Monument.  There’s a coast guard station, naval station, and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.  Here’s a photo of the riptides off the coast, taken :


and here is a photo of San Diego from the point:

sd overlook

We stayed downtown in San Diego, walking distance to a good theater (Hillcrest Theater, where we saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – sad but really well done, which seems to be the pattern this year) and good restaurants (Kemo Sabe, Pizza Nova), then drove up to La Jolla and stayed again by another good theater (La Jolla Village Theater, where we saw There Will be Blood and had dinner from their Whole Foods).  La Jolla definitely had the more beautiful coastal views:

lj look

We captured this photo of a La Jolla lifeguard re-organizing all the stuff he carried around in his car:


We liked this sculpture above the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art:


and it was fun to watch this seal waddle up the beach to rest with 50 of its friends, between snacks:


Warmth Again – Joshua Tree National Park, CA

josh tree

From the Grand Canyon we drove down to Joshua Tree State Park in California.  The trees are very unusual, as you can see.  The park is a bowl surrounded by mountains, with two ecosystems, one with more rain (where the Joshua Trees grow) and a lower one with the more typical cacti and shrubs.  Although it was cool (high in the mid-50s) by their standards, we were happy to get out of the snow and ice.  Here’s a “forest” of these trees:


The drive through the park was in very good shape in the north-west section, although the southern section was less well maintained.  At the southern exit we dropped right onto I-10.  Here’s a photo of the road through the Joshua Trees:


One of the hikes in Joshua Tree went to Barker Dam, created by cattle rustlers – here’s a cool photo Chris snapped there:

barker dam

Below the Joshua Tree zone and above the lower, drier desert is a garden of Cholla Cactus, also called “Teddy Bear Cactus”.  They look very soft but there are lots of warning signs about how nasty the microscopic needles are on these – parents are encouraged to maintain tight control of their small children on the path.


Many visitors to Joshua Tree National Forest climb the rock formations here – they are composed of magma that pushed up through the earth’s crust, split vertically and horizontally during their formation.


Northern Arizona Tour

san fran peaks

We stayed in Flagstaff (or “Flags” as the locals refer to it) for two nights.  The hotel was just south of town (and more distant from the constant freight trains running right through town) and owns a pine forest behind the hotel buildings, so we took a 1-mile walk through the snow.  

pine woods

We also found Chris some new hiking boots with higher ankle support downtown, had some fresh Thai food, some soy lattes at the local coffee shop, and caught up with some laundry.  Although it is an old town (Route 66 goes right through it), Flagstaff’s location and the presence of Northern Arizona University keeps it alive.  It’s on Interstate-40, about an hour north of Sedona, and about an hour and a half south of the Grand Canyon.  Snowbowl, AZ, half an hour north, has over 30 ski slopes as well as cross-country skiing – and Las Vegas is roughly 3 hours west.

We left Flagstaff to drive up to the Grand Canyon via Rte 89 – the eastern route to the South Rim – it includes a side road (about 50 miles long) with access to two National Monuments – Sunset Crater and Wakupati.  The photo above is of the San Francisco Peaks (named after St. Francis of Assisi) from Sunset Crater.  The peaks are just north of Flagstaff.  The folks who study volcanos figured out that these peaks were once part of a single large mountain (draw imaginary lines from the left and right slopes to see the 12,000 foot original mountain).  They had originally assumed that the multiple peaks were formed by erosion, but after Mt. Saint Helens’ eruption, they saw the resultant shape of the mountain and decided that these peaks were actually formed from a single volcano.  In the foreground of the photo is a hill of lava from Sunset Crater – with a sparse growth of pine trees.


The Sunset Crater National Monument area was the first visit I had made to any volcano, and the size of the area covered with volcanic rocks was really amazing.  As we had first left Flagstaff and saw the hill by Sunset Crater we thought it was a mine, but as we drove north and turned toward it, we realized what it was.   There is so little rain in the area that it’s very hard for vegetation to gain much of a foothold.  The area’s web site has a virtual copy of the Lava Trail that I had explored before we went, and even though a lot of the trail was snow-covered, we still walked the 1-mile trail using their interpretive guide to learn more about the lava flows and volcanic activity.  This area around Flagstaff is on the intersection of the Colorado Mountain Range and the basin/plains, which is why scientists believe there are a line of small volcanoes moving east from the San Franciso peaks.  The thick crust of the earth on the mountain range and the thinner crust on the plains causes magma below the surface to push through at that line (don’t you like my scientific terminology?)  From Sunset Crater we drove down into the prairie, getting great views of the Painted Desert.  We toured a pueblo ruin in Wupatki, which was really fun.  It was built on a small hill of red rocks that gave it a commanding view of a large part of the surrounding prairie.
Then we went to the Grand Canyon.  There was snow and ice on the streets and trails, so we didn’t really push the hiking much.  Chris kept reminding me to be careful, which worked.  We walked about 5 miles on paved trails on the South Rim and snapped some photographs.  We talked to a man whose 7-year old son was “in tears from fear” for a while riding a mule down into the canyon, but then got comfortable and had a great time going down one day, staying in the canyon overnight, and riding a mule back out the next day.
We started laughing about taking pictures of things we “didn’t do”, like hiking down this icy trail that the mules used to get down into the canyon:
angel trail
Here’s another view of the same trail from the Rim down more into the Canyon:
angel 2
The Canyon was not crowded (compared to summer) but because it was Martin Luther King’s birthday, there were more people than a typical January weekend.  We caught this evidence of people enjoying the snow:

Taking a Break – Sedona, AZ

penrose view

We drove north from Tucson through Phoenix and on to Sedona.  We stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast (Penrose Bed and Breakfast) with views of red rock from every room, a delicious breakfast served every morning, and a real bed to sleep in.  What luxury!  They even had a library of DVD movies you could borrow.  We toured, relaxed, got real haircuts and eyebrows waxed.


One day we visited Enchantment Resort for lunch.  The resort owns the opening of Boynton Canyon, location of one of the most beautiful trails in the area.  The trail winds around their fenced-in property and then further back into the canyon.  Here’s a photo of the resort from their parking lot – with a croquet court and tennis court in the foreground.


We even shopped in a few art galleries just for fun – we were searching for a mini-sculpture like the one we saw at Seminole Canyon State Park in Texas.  Bill Worrell was the sculptor, and we saw similar sculpture outside an art gallery so we wandered in to check.  All we could afford was an autographed print!


Chris took this photo of a sparrow outside the bed and breakfast:


And Chris took this photo on the road from Sedona up to Flagstaff:


Scaling down – Catalina State Park, AZ

For the first two days in Tucson we stayed in a Wal-Mart parking lot, just to cost-average the time we had spent in campgrounds near the border – we had thought we weren’t very safe in Texas unless we were in a campground, but we were safe in Tucson – until we started noticing the news on TV of “coyote gangs” kidnapping and killing each other, and shopped for cars in Tucson – where they tend to add acid-etched identification to all car windows for anti-theft protection.  Then we moved north of Tucson to Catalina State Park.  We enjoyed the addition of saguaro cacti to the landscape.

Then we made a major decision – to sell off the RV and purchase a car to finish our trip. This made perfect sense, given we had decided to end our wandering this spring to find jobs and re-establish residence.  The early halt is just because the health insurance companies Chris applied to (in advance of her COBRA ending) could choose not to offer it to her – due to some “incidental findings” that weren’t causing any concerns at the present but might possibly, at some point in the future.   As is my nature, I brainstormed alternatives (e.g., short-term greeter jobs at Wal-Mart) that might re-start her COBRA clock, but we just didn’t come up with anything really worthwhile.  Friends – remember this when you vote for President!!!  It’s NOT just those people who “choose not to buy it”.  In fact, we’ve met many people “on the road” who have learned first-hand how valuable their (Canadian/Medicare/independent) health insurance is, once they really have health problems – they know they wouldn’t be able to get insurance anywhere after the fact!

Tucson was full of RV dealers.  I had briefly posted the RV for sale on one website (and got a nibble there as well as two nibbles from folks we met while touring Tucson).  The folks interested in purchasing the RV needed time to get their cash in order, and in doing my research I figured it would take a month or two to find a private party in order to gain about $5,000 in sale price – while continuing to travel in the RV and hoping the buyer was where we wanted to be.  Between the ease of selling in Tucson and the cost savings of traveling in a vehicle with (even better) gas mileage, and despite the cost of shipping stuff back to Ohio, we decided to go ahead.  It also enables us to travel further north, which we want to do – but were concerned about the RV freezing up. 


This photo shows Chris sadly going through things to decide what to ship back to Ohio (Thanks for the basement space, Mike & Jana!), what to toss away, and what just had to fit into an even smaller RV.  And below – the smaller RV.  Why an Element?  Because you can fit a couple of dogs in the back!


No, it’s not really a motorhome, but we have slept in it.  Each night we put all the stuff into the front seats and against the sides – then we can sleep in the middle-to-the-back.  The second seats fold up against the sides of the “trunk” space.  We have the 4″ foam cushion we had for the RV bed inside, which makes it very comfortable, if a bit crowded.  The first night after the RV was sold, we closed ourselves in when it got dark at 6:30pm and gamely tried to fall asleep.  The next day we bought rechargeable reading lights and an electric blanket.  This photo shows the back with the foam cushion in place and the seats folded up – but with several boxes still in the “sleeping” area:
elem back
In the State Park where this transition took place, we also believe we’ve caught a glimpse of our potential future camper, to extend the comfort of the Honda Element.  It can pull about 1500 pounds via the standard hitch we had installed – and that’s about what this little thing weighs:

San Xavier Mission – Tucson, AZ


We stopped south of Tucson to tour the San Xavier Mission – even more fun because we were in the midst of reading the two novels by Ken Follett about the building of early cathedrals.  The mission is being renovated, but the plaster figures inside are still amazing to see.

detail plaster

My eye was caught by a carved lion figure at the front of the sacristy:
We enjoyed a garden of flowering cacti in the front of the mission:
And a quiet courtyard in the back of the mission:
By the way – during the drive to Tucson from New Mexico … we saw what seemed to be a rain storm in the distance – and then we noticed this sign by the side of the road:

Silver City had a Cloudy Lining – Driving through New Mexico


We turned north from Davis Mountain TX toward New Mexico.  I plotted a course up toward Carlsbad Caverns, and once we arrived in the vicinity we stopped at a roadside diner for coffee to go (I also waited for a serving of fried okra).  I picked up a Carlsbad Caverns tourguide and we found we were 20 minutes late already for the “last entrance” to the caverns (2:00pm).  In our defense, we had crossed a time zone and it felt like 3:20pm.  We pulled into a Wal-Mart to spend the night, but it was awfully early to sit.  Chris confessed she hadn’t really had a lot of interest in the Caverns, and had kept her mouth shut thinking I was keen.  We decided to keep moving forward.
Northwest of Carlsbad is Lincoln National Forest, and one of the “most beautiful drives in the USA” according to the book Barb & Walt gave me, and we figured from just looking at the map that we could drive through part of it, stay at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park overnight, and finish the rest the next day.  I didn’t really scope it out using our navigation system or notice that the driving time implied an average speed of about 40 mph.  Needless to say, as we approached Lincoln National Forest we started seeing signs warning truckers to check their brakes.  That was a small red flag.   We gradually crept higher in altitude, seeing a few interesting signs along the way:


We started seeing TREES (rather than scrub and cactus) and climbing higher and higher until we saw … SNOW.


By this time we were getting tired, realized that the sun wasn’t suddenly going to set an hour later just because we had crossed a time zone, and that the altitude problems we had in Texas at 5400 feet were going to be with us in full once we reached Cloudcroft NM (8800 ft).  We saw an RV campground with electricity and gladly pulled over for the night. 

The next day, as we entered Cloudcroft, we passed a ski area (not enough snow) and saw a cute small town and of course stopped for more coffee to go at Big Daddy’s Diner (Chris said it looked like it had some good food).  They sold her some “awesome” cookies to go with the coffee.  We took a side road up to see “The Lodge” and then continued out of Cloudcroft.  Then we saw signs like this:
alt sign
Cloudcroft and Alamogordo are only 16 (windy road) miles apart.  We drove slowly down the mountain, seeing vistas of the desert beyond, with a white stripe where the White Sands National Monument is:

vista view


It was beautiful, but very taxing on the driver.  At the top of the mountain it was 20 degrees, and by the time we descended we were back up in the high 50s.  We zoomed across toward Silver City and a state park called City of Rocks. It is a place in the desert where people believe a volcano eruption from Albequerqe (180 miles away) landed and gradually eroded so that there is a flat center park that is surrounded by large interestingly-shaped rocks.  Some RVers we met at Seminole Canyon had encouraged us to go there.  Of course, by the time we neared Silver City we were low on diesel, propane, and energy.  We filled up with diesel and propane and pulled into a KOA campground for the night instead.  The next day it was raining with that big nasty cloud overhead (top photo) so we skipped the 4-hour commitment to go see the City of Rocks and Gila Cliff Dwellings tour (opposite directions – yes, tourists of convenience).  We would have liked to see Santa Fe and Albequerqe, but they were further north and we were concerned about the RV freezing – so we headed for warm Tucson.